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Sunday, December 17, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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In adversity, many of us rediscover community

Seattle Times staff reporter

This wasn't Sept. 11, or Katrina, or Mitch. But as the most powerful storm to hit the region in years swept through Western Washington last week, it offered a chance for us to show that if there were a silver lining to chaos, it would be a community bonding in a time of need.

With power lost to a million customers, floodwaters threatening mayhem, trees wrenched from their foundations or strewn onto adjoining homes, could we be drawn out of our notoriously Northwest isolation? Would we step up?

Throughout the last several days, neighbors have offered others their homes, their muscle, their consolation. Thursday, as rain poured, some people carried others across downtown Seattle intersections that had turned into rushing rivers 18 inches deep.

As evening gusts began toppling trees and power lines, people offered shelter to others they barely knew. And in the days that have followed, many found unexpected community at local businesses — some with power, some not — or in helping others clean up damage left behind by the storm.

With schools and businesses closed Friday, some spots took on an unheralded holiday ambience. On Capitol Hill, restaurants along Broadway were flooded with overflow brunch crowds, many of them families with kids. "It feels like Christmas," said a beleaguered server at Café Septième.

Or maybe Woodstock, on a large, urban scale, minus the drugs and free love — instant community (just add water) in the face of torrential rains, one side huddling for warmth, the other embracing the mud. Could we show The Man that millions of us could gather peacefully after such a crisis?

Well, not always. As much as the storm brought out the good in us, it also brought out the bad, and sometimes the ugly: Police were called to keep peace at gas stations where long, impatient lines of motorists had gathered when other stations were unable to operate without power.

Love thy neighbor? "I'm about ready to kill my neighbor," said one North Seattle resident who found chunks of the tree next door in her yard after the storm. The neighbor refused to help remove them, she said.

But in some ways, the storm may have saved us from ourselves. Chuck Campbell, of Des Moines, was cursing the Seahawks' poor performance Thursday when his power went out just after 9 p.m. "Thank God I don't have to watch this crap anymore," he told himself.

Elsewhere, though, brotherly love was plentiful: After hearing Friday reports about mass power outages, University of Washington student Allyson Kolan wondered if she was the only one who still had lights on. She issued a bulletin to friends on MySpace: "Am I the only here who has electricity? ... If anyone is stranded somewhere and needs help, let me know! I will come get you!"

Meanwhile, thousands without electricity sought warmth and shelter at shopping malls such as University Village and Northgate Mall. Others found warm meals at places such as the typically sedate Images Cafe at Kirkland's Evergreen Hospital, whose business tripled with locals, many of them large families, thrown together by the power outage.

"For the last two days, we have been the beacon of light here in the darkness of Kirkland," says Chuck Thorell, Evergreen's hospitality-services director. "That's all anybody has talked about. 'Do you have power? Where do you live? Where are we going to get gasoline?' "

At an otherwise cold and dark QFC store on Mercer Island, workers fired up a store barbecue grill and dished out free burgers and hot dogs to bundled customers. Donations went to Food Lifeline. "How much peanut butter or tuna fish can you eat?" asked store manager Ted Saalfeld. "You need warm food on a cold day."

In Renton, Jay and Lois Fulwider returned Friday from California to find a neighbor's big tree leaning on their house. One neighbor came right over.

The three popped open a bottle of cabernet and waited for the woman's husband to return from the San Juan Islands — winds had disrupted ferry operations — so they could get to work.

Suddenly: a chance to socialize for neighbors who often don't. "Not that we're not friends, but we've never done anything together, and we're gonna be out there with our chain saws," Jay Fulwider said. "Now we're sitting here with our neighbor having a glass of wine, and that's kinda nice."

But not everyone has been pleased with the community's response. Landscaper Rudy Pantoja has long complained of blocked storm drains along Ballard neighborhood streets, blockages he says worsened Friday's flooding.

Too many people expect city workers to take care of it all, he says, without rolling up their sleeves to help take care of it themselves. "Maintenance depends on all of us. ... The men in this town need to get off their computers and get out here and take care of business."

Seattle Times staff reporters Susan Gilmore and Nicole Tsong contributed to this report.

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or mramirez@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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